Monday, December 26, 2011

Review #1: Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

Howdy, partner.

Considering that it won SpikeTV's Video Game of the Year award and the fact that I actually have been playing the game for a few weeks now, I thought I might weigh in on the medieval dragon rodeo of Skyrim. Wrangling issues as shallow as petty thievery and as deep as militant upstart rebellions in a repressive protectorate of the Aldmeri Dominion, Skyrim has a little of everything. Of course, you have to actually participate to make any of it meaningful. More on that later. For now, let's rustle up some of what I feel are basics of the game that work and what doesn't work. Yippie kai yay, motherfuckers.

My personal background of the Elder Scrolls setting is admittedly limited. The first one I played was Oblivion some years ago, and I recall watching a friend play Morrowind on his Xbox years before that. Oblivion was clunky, and plagued by ugly faces and many repeated lines of dialogue complete with poor voice acting. However, exploring a semi-open world and leveling via skills performed seemed pretty cool at the time. It was only later on that I realized the level system was broken beyond repair and that I had horribly gimped my characters by playing as common sense would dictate. Also, level scaling of the monster encounters made the game even more difficult and I'd say nigh-unplayable without modifications.

Thankfully, Skyrim changed quite a few things... and yet kept many things the same. Overall, it's a more enjoyable experience with a few niggling flaws. In my opinion.

  • Point of Entry:
I get it. You're the unknown hero. You work your way up from nothing and hopefully make something of yourself. You mature and grow as a character, learn a few lessons about yourself, maybe try something new. Can that be done without forcing me into a cart for a 30 minute ride into an execution? I understand that it sets up the entire story conflict and dragonborn, yadda yadda yadda... But did it really need a character creation shoehorned into it? If they'd asked me, I would have told them creation goes at the beginning of the adventure, before the opening credits, not in the middle of the prologue. This does two things: it makes the player feel like they own the character and possess it, maybe care what happens when they're put on the chopping block. Second, it doesn't break the flow in the middle of the execution. After I finished doodling around making my orc and got back in the saddle I'd almost forgotten why I was here and why I should care. Put the character creation at the beginning, like every other RPG. If other Elder Scrolls games follow a similar formula, forgive me, I don't know them.

  • Dragons!
Yes, there are dragons. But they're not nearly as cool as the trailers or the developed videos show. They fly around well enough, but any sudden motion in their turning or alighting on an outcrop seems jerky, unnatural, and scripted. Maybe an animation where they scrabble for a foothold before they glower down at me and spray fire/frost breath. They also have very predictable combat patterns, which is good and bad. They have the hover+fire mode, where they come full stop and spew death across the field, usually at you or a companion/summon. Then there's the classic strafe where they draw a line of death along the ground as they fly by. This is the coolest attack, but they don't do it often, probably because it doesn't give the player much of an opening. They will also periodically land and spray death at you or a friend/passing critter/NPC. At around 35-50% they stay on the ground and engage in melee+breath weapon attacks. During all this mayhem, the player has to deal damage, while sustaining or avoiding damage. All this is pretty cool, then, except that I'll do it so many times it eventually will become bland. You have to kill dragons to capture their souls, a unique power of the dragonborn. You use these souls as currency to unlock words for your known Shouts. This brings me to the next topic.

The first stage of the main quest has you journey to High Hrothgar and speak with the Ancients/Elders/whathaveyou, whereupon they reveal to you that Shouts and the Voice, “Thu'um”, are actually unpronounceable dragon-language words that takes mortal men decades to learn and use. As a Dragonborn, you have innate talent to use the Voice, but not the knowledge of the words. You pick up words from giant stone markers etched with runes found across Skyrim (usually near dragons) and inside dungeon ruins. Each Shout has three words, and there are a LOT of Shouts. As I said, you use absorbed dragon souls to unlock the power of the words you pick up. Once they're known and unlocked you can use them anytime.

Now, my main gripe isn't the Shouts themselves, but how they're implemented. Your first completed Shout is the ubiquitous Unrelenting Force, or in dragonspeak, FUS RO DAH. This shout makes almost all the others play second fiddle to the Philharmonic. At full strength, it knocks man-sized enemies backward like ragdolls and stumbles giants, dragons, and similar large beasties. The utility of this shout is a step above every other one. It has a wide area effect, hits more than one target, and the recharge time is a negligible 24 seconds at full strength. Ah, yes. Did I mention the Shouts have recharge cooldown timers? Did I mention they all share the same timer? Well they do. One Shout cooldown at a time. No exceptions.

This is a major drawback. If not for the shared cooldown, I'd probably use the Shouts more than any other spell, which is a shame because the Shouts are so cool. The idea of using a powerful word or command to blast a group of enemies, breathe frost, freeze someone solid, or slow time is really appealing. But the fact that they share the cooldown and that the Unrelenting Force is the best by far really takes away from the dragonborn's unique power. He's supposed to be good at this without formal training, what's with the handcuffs, man? I want to enter combat, stop time, paralyze a zombie, and then send it flying across the room in slow motion. Is that so hard? Why make me choose? I'm missing a lot of fun here. Everything else about the Voice is awesome. Acquisition of words feels epic, absorbing souls feels accomplished, and using the Shouts are too cool. Putting a handicap on it is really just a “fuck you, you're having too much fun in a video game.” Moving on.

  • Baby killer or Dudley Doright?
Skyrim's story primarily deals with a rebellion between Imperials that officially rule Skyrim, their shadowy overlords who run the Empire in all but name, the Aldmeri Dominion, and a ragtag band of rebels, the Stormcloaks, whose current leader is Ulric whom you met at the beginning of the game after he had assassinated Skyrim's High King. What's the problem, you say? Well, the Imperials are generally okay, but because they lost a war with the Aldmeri some years ago, the worship of Talos is forbidden in the Empire, mostly because the Aldmeri say it's heretical for murky reasons. Still don't see the problem? Talos was one of the first dragonborn, if I understand the backstory, and practically the patron saint of Skryim's Nords. Being a far distant land, Skyrim's people are used to a little autonomy from the rest of the Empire. The Stormcloak faction takes this anti-Talos position personally and pins it on the Imperial kowtowing to Aldmeri influence. On the other hand, Skyrim's native Nords, and the Stormcloaks especially, are xenophobic, racist, and generally hold disagreeable opinions of the authority.

Personally, I'm not enticed to join either side. Imperials aren't really the enemy, but fighting against the Aldmeri is tempting. However, the Stormcloaks are bigoted dicks, maybe more so than the Dominion. They think all foreign influence is bad and that if you're not with them you're against them. My character is in the middle, holding the bag. This isn't the only instance of an either-or conundrum.

  • All or Nothing, and Other Limited Choices:
Skyrim suffers from an inability to accept the fact that a player (for instance, myself) may want to play a hybrid role, or a loner, or a central-leaning alignment. It's like, if you try to be decent at everything, not necessarily awesome, if backfires in your face and makes you suck. I built a proud, strong orcish woman (stfu) with a penchant for blowing things up and yet still handy with a small sword or mace. Other skills she uses frequently are Sneak, because she's fairly frail I can't have her run openmouthed into the fray; Lockpick, because duh, why pass up potentially awesome loot?; Archery for those sneak attack opening shots and dragons, and Conjuration/Illusion for summons and spells that confuse the enemy. I thought all these skills would work cohesively and make a strong all-around character as she grew more skilled.

It's had the opposite effect. While I've grown into the low 30s in level, all but two of my most used skills are in the 50s. Conjuration is frequently used, so I have high level summons, which is tremendously helpful to me and my melee companion. Destruction is comparatively low, however, and I find it difficult to deal substantial damage with magic alone, even with a significant pool of magicka and regeneration. As a partial result, my One-Handed skill is way out in front as another skill leader. This helps a little, but my defensive skills in Block and Light Armor and my total health isn't great.

The point is, I get the distinct feeling that while the way I've been playing is working, it's not as smooth or as easy as if I had started playing a pure magicka user or fighter, or sneak-thief. Gives me the feeling that I'm playing the game wrong, which is impossible to my mind. It's frustrating sometimes when almost anything can crush my orc in one or two power attacks, but it's challenging and fulfilling when those tough fights are conquered. Perhaps I should put more perks into Destruction...

  • Perks! Talents! And Where Are the Stats?
Elder Scrolls uses three main resources: Health, Stamina, and Magicka. As you gain skill in the different actions and item types, your experience level increases until you gain a level. If I paid attention I'd probably figure out how many skill ups it takes to make another level if it's a constant or a scaling amount. At each level up, you choose one of your three resources to increase. Usually you'd choose the area you feel you use most. Fighters use Health and Stamina, for example. Mages use mostly Magicka. Health gives you a hit point increase, Stamina increases how long you can run and how many power attacks you can perform, also how much weight you can carry maximum. Magicka is your spell casting pool. Shouts use no resource other than that blasted cooldown timer. Also at each level you gain a Perk point to spend. In your Skills screen there will be a rotating list of your skills and a constellation pattern of stars. Each starpoint is a place to spend your Perks to increase or modify some effect related to that Skill. For instance, you can increase your extra sneak attack bow damage in the Archery tree, or pick a certain level of locks more easily. In the magic skills, there are perks that increase damage by a percentage or allow you to dual cast spells to give them a greater effect (for more magicka, of course), or even a longer duration. The Skill trees are laid out in tiers, and each tier has a required skill level to reach before you can buy perks at that tier. Also, you must purchase any perks linked to that perk in the tiers below.

These perks let you somewhat customize your character to be really good at a particular few set of skills. However, if you play like I did, you'll find it tough to choose where and when to spend these points. I've been muddling along without buying anything in the Destruction area, while increasing my One-Handed damage and power attacks. For Magicka users, getting the related perks that lower the cost of a spell tier is critical to casting any high level spell. Lockpicking can be accomplished without spending any points. Stealth is similar, but to be effective early on, points must be spent. Still, I feel that if I had specialized heavily in two or three main skills I could have made the game much easier on myself.

  • Did You Hear the One About the Argonian Maid?
This section is easy. Elder Scrolls seems to like it's lore and in-game literature even more so. As a result, you practically trip over books of all kinds. Many of them pertain to the fauna and flora of Skyrim, though some talk about ancient empires and cultures of Tamriel, the continent. Bespattered among the refuse are certain books which grant immediate skill ups upon opening them, regardless if you read them or not. So while I applaud the efforts of the developer and creators to make players search stacks of books for the gems that give slightly more than literary value, it became a chore for me to click each book, open and close it quickly to see if it granted a skill. You see more than one copy of books all over the place, and some of them are actually quite interesting, or funny. “The Lusty Argonian Maid” v1 and v2 is especially uplifting; it arouses great interest in its pages. Both humorous and turgidly witty. Ahem. Many books have dark comedy, words of warning, or information on local legends or ruins you can go investigate later. Sadly, the quality of writing is poor and simple in style, often cluttered with typos, and the books themselves are never more than ten pages long. Still, they're there if you like to read them, if not, you can go ahead and search for those special books, or cheat and look up which books give what bonuses. A crazy person might tell you to save all the skill books until you've almost maxed a skill, then use the books to finish them and save yourself the time. But who does that?

  • A Word on Proper Questing:
Questing in Skyrim becomes almost an epic task of its own. Within minutes of entering your first Jarl's hold, your journal will be bursting with missions. The ability to track which ones you're currently following is simple enough, but I find that if you track too many at once, you might get confused on which arrow to follow. It sounds silly, but I'm not exaggerating the number of quests and missions from NPCs you'll receive. The developers definitely gave the player enough to do in this Elder Scrolls game. Most of the quests involve entering a barrow, cave, or ruin and finding an item, killing a specific NPC, or collecting a set of drops to turn in.

The missions aren't terribly deep or inspired, but they're effective at getting the player out into the wilderness and exploring. Frequently the location you need to get to is way off in the distance, and getting there is not a matter of walking in a straight line. There are plenty of other landmarks to get you sidetracked if you're like me and enjoy the exploration part of the game. And there's always the fun risk of a dragon attack in the open wilds.

Often the rewards for these spelunking missions are only in the skills you increase while you're there. A modest compensation in gold is the common reward, perhaps a few hundred or thousand septims, plus whatever magical arms and armor you find within. Other than the character progression, there's really no need to do the side missions. If you take that attitude, the main quest story part of the game is incredibly short for such a large scale endeavor. I recommend an attitude of adventure and a willingness to see what awaits around that next corner.

  • Man's Best Fodder—Err, Friend:
Your choices for companions in this game are varied, from spellcasters to melee archetypes and nothing in between. There might be an archer type, but I haven't found him. The melee types will shoot a bow if you give them one, so there's no real downside to taking a companion of the opposite skill set you use to complement you.

That being said, there is a downside if you're a spellcaster like my character and your melee friend tanks right in the path of your fireballs or lightning storms. They get a face full of fire, and if that happens too many times they will turn on you and go medieval on your ass. It wouldn't be too hard to avoid, except that the higher tier spells are all area-effects like fireball, or they bounce to all nearby targets like chain lightning. It's nearly impossible to throw a spell that doesn't deal collateral damage while your companion is wailing on the other guy's junk.

Your companions are pretty hardy, I'll give them credit. When your companion gets hit hard enough and their health is reduced to a danger zone, they kneel and submit, which usually causes the enemy AI to ignore them temporarily and come after you or a summon. After your companion sits for a second, they get a second wind and regenerate a little more health and get back in the fight. You can also heal them yourself with spells, and probably potions, I never tried. If, however, the enemy does not ignore them in their weakened state, or you miss with a fireball and hit them with it, they can just outright die. From then, it's up to you to either accept their loss and move on, or to reload a save before the fatal error occurred. More than once I've had to reload after a successful fight because I look around afterward and notice that somehow my companion died during the battle.

Pathing in the wild is also a big problem for these companions. Too often I'll jump over a small rock ledge and continue moving in a straight line, only to look back and see my companion has elected to take the long way around, right through the giant's camp with the wooly mammoths. This is unacceptable. If the game goes out of the way to include working companions to help the player, following the player should be a smooth and natural operation. Instead, I'm constantly reminded that the AI is doing its best to accompany me. I'm made very aware of the artificiality of the companion and no meaningful bond is shared. If they die, it's more of an inconvenience than a tragedy.

I enjoy the companions for the most part. For a stealthy character, they will ruin all sneakiness, and they do get in the way of some combats. They are also unreliable in the wilderness due to pathing issues. Despite these failings, they accomplish their primary mission in life: standing in front or behind you, being a meat shield and dealing damage. They also carry extra gear or treasure.

  • Level Scaling and You:
This crap right here needs to stop. Rarely is there a game that can do level scaling in a way that makes sense, and Skyrim is no exception. Monsters and bandits level with you for the most part, gaining health and damage in order to pose a constant threat to you. This is applied somewhat randomly, I've found. Most of the wildlife seems to level poorly compared to the humanoids, who almost always have significant health to beat through. Dragons and other large creatures also scale poorly, if at all. I expect that if a character was more devoted to pure melee combat and high weapon skills, they plow through dragons, mammoths, and giants. As I experience the game, they're still a challenge, but the next battle doesn't hurt nearly as bad as the previous fight.

Level scaling only makes sense when... well it almost never makes sense. For big bosses it might. Dragons should scale precisely with the player's combat abilities, not necessarily the total level of the character. But every other mob in the game is fodder for the player to level on. In a game that encourages exploration and sightseeing, plus dragons, level scaling doesn't make a lot of sense, especially when it's unevenly applied. If the game insists on having it, and the player becomes too powerful for the monsters, perhaps some new creatures should appear to slowly replace the old ones. More powerful versions, like wolves turn into dire wolves, or mutated daedric wolves. I recall Oblivion did this with some success, except that the level system in that game made no sense to me, and eventually screwed me. In my opinion, the dragons, as bosses and ideally some of the toughest epic fights, should scale heavily to the player, but only to the player's combat repertoire. Select dungeons, or story-driven encounters should also scale, but just enough to make it interesting and the player isn't killing everything in one or two hits.
  • That Damnable User Interface:
This is Skyrim's worst feature. The user interface (on the PC, which is what I've played) is just godawful. Scrolling. Scrolling everywhere. I think I may break my scrollwheel playing the game. So much time is wasted scrolling down the menu and submenus to find an item or spell to cast, it really breaks the flow of any meaningful gameplay. What would really improve the look, feel, and utility is more intelligent use of space onscreen. Two narrow columns of menus and your inventory is not an efficient use of a 1920x1080 resolution. I don't care about graphical representations of the weapons, or even the blurry overlay of the game world. It would run much smoother with a separate screen altogether, and either a smaller, 2D model representation, or just the text statistics. Showing what items you have equipped is needlessly difficult as well. The best they can do is put markers next to your items and the game doesn't even bother telling you which slots you have occupied, or available.

  • Conclusion
Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is a solid game. I feel it is challenging if you want it to be. The main quest is short compared to the total scope of the game's possibilities, and a number of things try to take away from the adventure. Despite its glaring flaws and attempts to undermine itself, solid is still the word to use. I don't like to use numbers because games are subjective, but I would give Skyrim a solid 80%, a B-, 8/10. The game has individual features that are frustrating but they impact the total package in a limited way that doesn't detract too much from the experience. If you get into it, and you like exploring ruins from ancient civilizations, killing dragons, throwing spells, and dealing with various organizations or going it alone, Skyrim might be right for you. Just be aware of what the game is and isn't. It is not a sandbox RPG, where you go and do whatever you want without restriction. It is an exploration-intensive quest-driven RPG that encourages adventure and action but on your terms. The majority will enjoy this game. Elder Scrolls veterans and RPG purists may not. Be warned.  

-edited 2/22/12 for grammar

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